It started at 3:12 A.M. -I know that because I kept looking at the red numbers on the clock beside my bed. I suppose it was the dream, but I just couldn’t get back to sleep. When you think you’ve done something really embarrassing, really stupid, it’s hard not to dwell on it; when it surfaces in a dream that magnifies it beyond what actually happened, it’s impossible to let it settle into its proper proportions for a while. Perspective involves the rational parts of a mind, and that’s not what the darkness of a winter’s night, lit only by the bright scarlet glow of slowly changing numbers on a digital clock, permits.
Okay, so I’d left the price tag hanging from my unusually-striped sweatshirt. And yes, if I’d only tucked it into my pants, nobody would have been any the wiser that I got it on sale from a bargain rack at the local Value Village. But I never tuck sweatshirts, especially when they’re a bit too large, a bit too bulky -it destroys the effect, don’t you think? And anyway, the tag wasn’t flashing, like it did in the dream, and the price wasn’t written in bright red numbers and hanging half way down my leg. Still, tell that to my brain at 3:12 AM; tell that to my heart, pounding in the dark, as if it were trying to run away from the ignominy and escape from the helpful voice that saw the tag as I stood in line at Starbucks.
These things happen, though, I guess. And it’s not as if this is the first time; I should know better. I mean, I try to think well of myself, but stuff keeps happening. Maybe I should take classes, or something.
And as I lay there, wrapped in darkness, a warm soothing blanket of warmth slowly embraced me. I surrendered to that longed-for parental embrace once more, while the night disappeared around me, and the dream dissolved as if it had only appeared by accident.
Morning arrived early, however, and although I’d hardly slept, it quickly dawned on me that if I ever wanted to avoid those embarrassing nightmares, I’d have to work on exercising who I really was. Work on changing lenses. After all, it’s not always the surgeon’s fault -there are a lot of other people in an operating room…
And there are probably a lot of people who leave sales tags on their clothes, too, so I decided it might be a good idea to reassure myself in a busy downtown mall. Lunch time would probably be the best, as people rushed to find seats in the Food Court mindless of what was hanging from their clothes. A growling stomach and pastry eyes would brook no petty subservience to the niceties of social intercourse.
But, the Court was full to overflowing, so I stood in the corridor near the entrance and watched. And watched… Alas, reassurance was in short supply and my legs were getting tired, so I sat on the only seat available in one of those old-people sections that always gets constructed as a breakwater for the tide of humanity rushing along the arcades in every mall.
At first I thought I was the only person awake, but then, three or four seats away, I noticed a middle aged fellow with short, messy brown hair, who seemed to be waiting for somebody, judging by his watchful eyes, and the concerned, anxious expression on his face. He kept shifting uneasily in his seat and turning his head this way and that, as if whoever he was meeting might not see him.
He was wearing a long, and faded blue parka with wooden toggles as fasteners, and a droopy hood hung like an afterthought from the back.
A cold spell had gripped the city, but it was warm in the mall so he wore his parka partially open at the neck, although the lower two fasteners were missing, and I could see the edge of a bright red shirt peeking out from underneath. The brightness seemed incongruous with the rest of him, actually, so I found myself staring at it. At one point, he noticed my eyes, and quickly tried to close the bottom half of the coat. He seemed embarrassed, so I retrieved my eyes and let them hover over the ever-moving crowd splashing by. Some people are just sensitive about their clothes, I realized, and smiled to nobody in particular.
The rest of the seats were asleep, or perhaps merely putting in time until the mall closed -at any rate, they seemed supremely disinterested in anything that passed unless it made a noise, or called to them.
So the man in the parka stood out like an ever-alert bird on an offshore rock, careful of the turbulence around it. Every so often, he bent over and fiddled with the laces on his shoes, although it would happen so suddenly, for all the world it looked as if he was ducking. The poor man, I thought, and I began to watch him out of the corner of my eye. It really did seem as if he had some sort of movement disorder -Tourette’s syndrome, perhaps, although he never really recovered his composure and continued some movement or other without cease. I tried to keep my eyes elsewhere.
After one particularly aggressive try for a shoelace, though, the lower part of his coat opened again, and the bright red shirt winked at me. Actually, it was something on the shirt that caught my eye -a coloured sales tag, it looked like. But this time, he merely glanced at me and quickly got to his feet and blended into the crowd passing by as if he’d intended that all along. Possibly he finally saw the person he’d been waiting for, although I didn’t see him greet anybody. At any rate, he disappeared like foam on a wave, and soon there were just people again, nameless, and largely faceless. I did see two security guards hurry past though, trying to fade into the background, despite their wandering, inquisitive eyes, but after quickly inspecting our motley crew, they hurried on as if we didn’t matter.
I suppose we didn’t…